Saving our drinking water for, well, drinking

Water expert touts benefits of recycled water, from farming to flushing.

May 10, 2016 | By: Tyler St. John
Mac Noah, water treatment tech operator, checks a sample at the Denver Water Recycling Plant.
Mac Noah, water treatment tech operator, checks a sample at Denver Water’s Recycling Plant.

Despite its use for more than a century, many people still find the concept of recycled water a bit “icky.”

But recycled water is a proven technology being used around the world, according to a new book by Michael E. Webber, faculty affiliate of the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

People have been putting recycled water to use everywhere from Denver to Singapore, Israel, and even the International Space Station, Webber writes in “Stop Flushing Water Down the Drain.”

In an excerpt published in Scientific American, he explained the many benefits recycled water can bestow upon a community, including irrigation, industrial uses and energy production. He noted that Austin, Texas already treats and reuses wastewater, also known as effluent or reclaimed water, for irrigation and cooling in some of its downtown areas.

And yet many people, including some Coloradans, continue to have misperceptions about recycled water. Critics have deemed the process “toilet to tap” or “partially treated wastewater” and perpetuated the belief that the water in question is untreated and unclean.

And while the water running through the purple pipes at Denver Water isn’t up to the same standard as our drinking water, it runs through a rigorous treatment process. In fact, recycled water goes through two separate treatment processes and is of higher quality than the standards set forth by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Denver Water’s Recycling Plant, pictured here, was designed and built to handle tours for youth education classes, water industry professionals and engineering students. The treatment processes are visible, and it’s easy to walk a person throughout the various buildings on site.
Denver Water’s Recycling Plant, pictured here, was designed to handle tours for youth education classes, water industry professionals and engineering students. The treatment processes are visible, and it’s easy to walk a person through the various buildings on site.

That’s critical for Colorado, where the climate is dry, the water supply is limited and the metro area is expected to grow by a million people by 2040. With this population increase, any recycled water we use directly reduces the demand on potable drinking water. Public officials have recognized this and have included the use of recycled water as part of Colorado’s water plan, a comprehensive strategy to prepare for Colorado’s population growth and water needs.

Denver Water has operated the state’s largest recycled water system since 2004, and there are 25 recycling water programs in the state. Denver’s recycled water now serves more than 80 customers, including schools, parks, golf courses, the Denver Zoo, and commercial property owners.

Last year Denver Water customers used almost 2 billion gallons of recycled water, reducing the demand on the drinking water system and helping keep more water in mountain streams. We plan to increase our reuse of water as part of our integrated approach to ensure that 50 to 100 years from now our customers will continue to receive the highest quality, most secure water supply available.

In his book, Webber maintains that recycled water has uses beyond irrigating land and cooling power plants. He says it can also be used in the home for non-potable water needs, such as showering, washing clothes, gardening and flushing the toilet.

“In many ways it is ridiculous that we use the world’s cleanest water for toilet flushing in the first place, so this approach seems sensible by comparison,” he writes.

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